What My 3-Year-Old Taught Me About Fear

I don't profess to be fearless. In fact, I'm scared of a great many things.
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I don't profess to be fearless. In fact, I'm scared of a great many things. Helicopters (too high, too loud!), learning Chinese (my husband's fluent and hey, wouldn't it be great if my daughter learned from both parents?), and never being able to make the perfect pie (my mother's crust is beyond delicious -- yet impossible to replicate).

My daughter, Gemma, is 3. She already loves shoes and costume jewelry. She's a train fanatic, appreciating everything from Thomas to subway cars. We have discussions about princesses and dinosaurs and animals that live in the water and on land -- fascinating stuff. She has trouble sharing (still), throws tantrums (sometimes), and loses her patience (as do I -- occasionally). Three is far from perfect, but better than 2, I think. At least so far. We've entered a phase of reason and thought and processing. She "gets" so much more than she ever did before.

Gemma's not so different from most 3-year-olds. She understands (and experiences) happiness, sadness, excitement and fear. She's always thrilled to spend time with her A Yi ("Auntie"). Her feelings can be hurt -- easily. She's also scared of some things, including ants, worms, and slimy "stuff." Miniature bugs and spiders. Last week, after a particularly heavy rainstorm, we were leaving the house. She noticed a tiny snail on our front stoop. "Mama, carry me," she sobbed -- paralyzed against actually stepping over it. That snail was the chasm that would prevent her from reaching the sidewalk.

Like her mother, she's also terrified of heights -- mostly in the form of tall playground slides. Our playground scenario has generally unfolded as follows: Gemma climbs to the peak of the tallest slide, following other children; she panics; she screams for me; I retrieve her; she stares sheepishly at the structure (realizing she didn't quite make it). And I feel a little sad for her.

A few weeks ago, at the playground, I watched from the ground as she approached the high, curvy slide. I stood, poised (the result of experience), anticipating that moment when she'd call for me. Reaching the top of the slide she paused, looked down, and climbed onto it. She was on the ground before I even realized what was happening.

She did it.

I'm not sure if it was consistently seeing the other children conquer that slide, or whether she just decided it was time. I'm sure it was terrifying. I'm positive her stomach jumped into her throat. But for whatever reason, this seemingly impossible feat became possible. In one moment.

She was so pleased with herself.

And I wondered how often I've stood at the top of a metaphorical slide, deciding not to go down. I confess, it's been more than once. Applying for a new job, taking a risk with my writing, even cultivating a new friendship. You need to slide to make things happen, to shape your life in a way that makes you happy.

Gemma is fearless. And me? I'm not so sure. But I'd like to be. I'm trying to be.

I guess that adage is true: We can learn a lot from our children.

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